IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa Athletics Department wants to hire an outside agency to improve customer service, deepen fan engagement, and increase ticket sales — which have slipped of late in some sports and have room for improvement in others.
The university last week issued a call for proposals from firms interested in partnering to manage a “dedicated ticket sales, fan development, and customer service staff.” The firm also would employ new technologies to monitor, evaluate, and predict ticket and fan trends “to make intelligent sales decisions.”
One of the prime goals, according to the call for bids, is to increase ticket sales, “resulting in consistent capacity crowds energized to create a winning and entertaining environment.”
In a statement, UI Athletics Director Gary Barta said his department aims to make buying tickets and cheering on the Hawkeyes “as convenient as possible.”
“This is not a new concept for intercollegiate athletics or our department,” he said of a potential partnership with an outside firm. “The environment continues to evolve, along with the importance of technology and data analytics, and we believe it is important to explore the current market.”
Charlie Taylor, associate athletics director with the department’s strategic communications and marketing, said the university has worked with an outbound sales company for years. But that was on a smaller scale, and this would be much more involved and technical.
“Businesses change and evolve,” Taylor said. “How fans interact and how they buy tickets and need to be served, that evolves constantly, and this is an element we want to take a hard look at.”
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The UI Athletics Department is a self-sustaining enterprise, meaning it doesn’t take general education dollars from the main campus and operates on ticket sales, donations, and other athletics revenue. It boasts 24 NCAA teams, but only regularly charges to watch nine of its squads.
Although UI athletics — with a surplus of $1.8 million — made money last year for the first time since 2013-2014, according to the department’s most recent 2016-17 report to the NCAA, revenue from many of its key programs — like football and basketball — is declining, according to a Board of Regents report in August.
The 2018 budget showed UI football income at $23.5 million, down from $24.1 million in 2017 and below 2018 football program expenses of $26.4 million. Men’s basketball revenue in 2018 is budgeted at $3.64 million, down from $3.67 in 2017 and well below its 2018 expenses of $7 million.
Much of the bump in UI athletics revenue comes via the Big Ten Conference, which increased its contribution to the department’s bottom line from $36.2 million in 2017 to $50.4 million in 2018.
When looking at ticket sales, specifically, Iowa’s attendance fell in 2017 from an average 69,565 fans per game in 2016 to 66,337. The last time UI averaged a sellout for its football season — averaging 70,585 — was in 2011.
The university previously has employed tactics to increase sales and engage with fans — offering thousands for educational expenses to season ticket holders one year. And the UI Athletics Department currently has extensive communications, sales, and external relations teams, listing six staffers in its ticket office.
Taylor said this initiative potentially would add “one more team” and would not result in staff reductions.
“This is something that internally we do not have,” he said.
Athletics administrators have not made public the amount they expect to pay for an outside agency’s fan and ticketing work, and bids are due back April 12. The intent, though, is to award a two-year contract, with an option for three one-year extensions, with a pricing model based on revenue sharing and emphasizing new business. Work could start as soon as this spring.
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Bidders must demonstrate how they plan to meet a long list of expectations, including providing “consistent and broad outreach to all current and potential fans and supporters allowing UI Athletics to strengthen current relationships and create new ones.”
A contractor would launch year-round marketing campaigns, employ analytics software to track progress, and even develop a sales program with UI sports marketing undergraduate and graduate students “with the potential of future employment.”
In the end, Taylor said, the department might not hire anyone — if they don’t find what they’re looking for. But Steve Roe, assistant athletics director in charge of UI athletic communication, said “the landscape has changed nationally regarding customer buying behavior.”
“It’s about listening to our fans and developing a stronger relationship with them.”
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